Sunday, August 12, 2007

On convictions and acting

I've been having some important discussions lately with actors. These discussions center around convictions -- what they "will" and "won't" do -- and how it impacts their acting and auditioning.

The discussion has been ongoing, but started anew when someone recounted to me an anecdotal instance, and it grew from there. In this particular instance, an actress in a mock audition scenario asked if she could substitute something else in a line of dialog that used "God" as a verbalized sigh. It was against her personal convictions to use "God" in what she considered a flippant manner.

Let the contention begin.

And while the scenario was recounted to me anecdotally, I'm sure every actor has experience with this. I know I've got direct experience, and the ensuing discussions were not anecdotal. ;-)

First, by way of background, let's go with at least two working principles:
  1. There's a separation between the actor as person (and their convictions), and the actor in a role (and what is true / authentic / organic for that character).

  2. I don't have this figured out, and struggle with it all of the time.

Let's start with the first issue, that of separation between the actor as person actor in a role as character.

There's one school of thought that says my movie role as a megalomaniac world conqueror is not likely to bridge into the "real" world.

There's another school of thought that says anything I do in a role is OK, because it's not "me" doing it -- it's the character.

One of my favorite tools for figuring things out reductio ad absurdum -- "reduction to the point of absurdity". As an apagogical argument, this is a great way for me to find the ludicrous in a debate, discard it, and find out what holds up. Put more simply, it's "finding the stupid". (An analogy in marketing or sales is "getting to a 'no', so we can start discussing the 'yes'.")

In practicality, I use reductio ad absurdum to assume something (for the purpose of discussion), get an an absurd or ridiculous outcome, and figure out the hole(s) in the original assumption (because the result is wonky).

That's your logic lesson for the day.

And I would say applying it this disussion, to posit "anything I do in a role is OK" is bullsh***.

(See I deftly mix high-brow intellectualism with low-brow boorishness?)

In all seriousness, I'm irritated with the arrogance of Biz folks who espouse this philosophy, because we know it's false. If I'm in the role of serial killer, I don't literally get to get away with murder. If I'm portraying a rapist, I can't actually violate my co-actor victim (just like hopefully no one argues it's OK for him / her to be violated by me, because "they're just playing a part").

These same folks might say this differently: "You need to get rid of your inhibitions."

Really? Because then I probably would kill (think road rage), violate (horniness without inhibitions is a frightening thought), and probably sleep with any person, animal, vegetable, or fruit (kumquats come to mind, for no obvious reason).

In short, I'd be an animal.

I watched an Inside the Actors Studio with James Gandolfini, where he said the same thing after recounting tearing apart a stage during a Meisner class, and the importance of being -- and controlling that being -- is what makes him an actor, and not an animal. So, we should learn from James.

(As an aside, it was this Gandolfini interview that motivated me to take my acting to the next level, and seek out a Meisner coach, and connect with my current coach and training).

How does this play out in practicality?

There was a monologue I gave where I'd been unjustly imprisoned, was out, and was going to attack a girl. I delivered my monologue directly to a girl, and I was so ramped up and angry and screaming I wanted to lunge across the tape line that was my mark and grab this girl. And I didn't cross the tape line. And in that moment, there was no intellectual ("non-being") interruptive acknowledgement that it even was a tape line.

Now, make no mistake, the cost is high. Like Gandolfini, scenes with violence toward women (verbal violence included) messes me up. I hate it. Because it's still me physically acting out this scene.

Which brings us back (in a roundabout way) to the struggle between me as individual and me as actor -- it's still me doing the stuff. If, as a person, I believe there is an all-powerful being called "God", and I believe one of his "big rules" is "thou shalt not take my name in vain", and I have a conviction to obey that, then I have to wrestle with whether I say it in an audition or scene.

Of course, it's all more complicated than that, as there are other factors like "is there something redemptive that happens to my character?"; "Is there something that happens to this character that serves as a warning to the audience?"; "Does art have a 'higher' purpose?"; "Is there something cathartic for me in doing this role?"; and on and on.

So we've had a nice, brief little dialectical jaunt around this topic -- So what was the advice given for the originating scenario?

It ranged (obviously). One person I know and respect deeply basically said, "Do what you're going to do and don't ask about it ahead of time."

Another industry vet (who I don't know personally, but admire his work and career in around 150 memorable supporting roles, so I won't mention his name), in essence gave the following advice:

"If you're unwilling to say lines as written, you shouldn't even audition.... It should be okay to speak privately to the director afterward and discuss it, but the audition room is not the place to do that."

I actually practice the former advice. To be honest, I think if I totally sell an audition -- it's believable -- they're not going to care if I leave out a word.

I disagree with the second bit of advice (admitting I'm responding to it in a vacuum). The way I see it, if I don't audition, I already don't have the part, so why not audition, leave out the contentious words, see if I get the part, then have the discussion?

More importantly, I feel like if I'm violating my convictions to nail an audition, I'm in essence prostituting my beliefs to get a gig. But that's just me.

And I've had bigger gigs -- like one 15-page scene where I told the director I couldn't do it as written, and asked permission to re-write it to where I could. To his credit, he let do whatever I wanted "to make it mine". But I was ready to be done with the project if push came to shove.

Circling back to that second working principle with which I started the discussion ("I don't have this figured out"), don't misinterpret this as inconsistency or waffling on my part. I consider my struggle with this the nature of the importance of the conflict, the strength of my convictions, and my being a thinking person who challenges, tests, and reassesses personal conviction (which is to say I feel "blind faith" isn't faith; or something).

And there are lots of folks thinking about this, and most of them are more studied and articulate than me. People like Barbara Nicolosi, who I don't know, but know of. They probably have more informative discussions.

No comments: